A metallic arc wide enough to encircle a passenger van shone brightly in the expansive laboratory. The product of decades of research, only the most brilliant scientific minds knew of the billion-dollar machine's existence, and just a fraction of them possessed knowledge of its operation. The sheer complexity of the structure rendered most awestruck, but Dr. Harold Wood had left awe behind years ago. He relished the quiet calm of the lab as he scribbled away in his notebook, preparing the configuration data for the upcoming trial.
The automatic sliding doors swished open, but Harold didn't turn around. The wafting odor of cigarettes and clicking of boots said enough. He frowned as he checked his watch.
"That's me. Ten points for you."
"You're almost an hour late."
"Give me some credit. I only woke up an hour ago."
Harold snapped his notebook shut and removed his glasses. "I won't ask where you've been the last couple of days."
"Just because you don't have a life doesn't mean I don't have to. It's Monday, morning and I'm here."
"It's 9:57. I asked you to be here at 9:00. We agreed—"
"—I come in, crunch some numbers, push some buttons, and you would pay me." She unzipped her hooded sweatshirt and pulled it off to reveal a tight black lycra tube top and her black hair tied into pigtails. He'd long ago given up the battle of her increasingly risqué wardrobe.
She tossed her sweatshirt onto the floor. "You want me to be on time, pay me more than twelve bucks an hour. Besides, you haven't even finished correcting the frequency data, so it's not like I'm needed yet anyways."
The jab stung, but he shrugged it aside as something else grabbed his attention.
"Is your nose pierced?"
"Well done. You've also passed the vision test." Mathilda casually strolled past her father. While the heeled boots weren't ideal for hours on her feet in the lab, she appreciated how they boosted her 5'6" height to 5'10", allowing her to gaze down slightly at her 5'8" father.
"Was another hole in your head really necessary?" Harold asked rhetorically. He knew she could care less what he thought of her appearance, and no amount of objection on his part would make any difference. At this point, their daily verbal sparring was the closest thing they had to a functional relationship. Wrapping a lab coat around her waist ("You told me I had to wear one. You didn't say how."), she took her place at the data station as her father finished his preparations.
"I'm almost done over here, Mathilda. Will you calibrate the—"
"—the harmonic resonance frequency of the field generator is already set, I'm not stupid."
"Good, we need an initial baseline level of—"
"—fifty megajoules. We did this all last week. Don't bug me to finish my work when you haven't finished yours." Harold checked the readout on his screen, which confirmed the settings. Mathilda idly reached for her book, making a show of appearing as bored as possible, though she couldn't suppress a grin at ruffling her father's feathers.
As much as Mathilda tried to hide it, Harold knew the lab work appealed to her intellectually. The genetic synergy of his intelligence and his ex-wife's fiery disposition had made Mathilda a handful to raise on his own, particularly with his time so often consumed by his research. After Mathilda got fired from two part-time jobs for theft and suspended from school for worse, he offered her a position as his lab assistant, where he could keep an eye on her and she had nothing of interest to steal. Unfortunately for Harold, it also gave her the gratification of regularly challenging him with her own prodigious intellect.
"Mathilda, I wish you would take this work more seriously. The Quantum Harmonic Oscillation Extraction Portal will revolutionize energy production as we know it. The power of zero-point energy harnessed through this device could power a city for a month at a hundredth of the cost of traditional means."
"More like a small town, and could is the keyword," Again, Harold glanced in her way, but she'd shoved her nose in her book, her dark bangs covering her eyes. She had a point, unfortunately. While his theories were sound, they still only existed on paper. To this point, he'd been unable to successfully create and sustain a stable enough field to generate zero-point energy, let alone power anything.
"Alright, preparations for trial #138 are complete. Engage the oscillator."
Mathilda shrugged, "Sure." Without looking away from her book, she inputted and confirmed the data, before leaning back against the wall, her face the picture of indifference. The portal hummed to life, ready to receive and process gigajoules of energy. Harold initiated the reaction and the machinery immediately powered down, a string of red text appearing on the screen. Grimacing, Harold read the output.
"Configuration consistency error? But how?"
"You swapped variables somewhere between lines six and four thousand seventy-two," Mathilda stated bluntly. Harold scrolled through pages of code, wondering when she'd even had time to read it. "You're welcome," she added.
Harold shook his head incredulously at the staggering amount of work it would take to debug the thousands of lines of code. At this rate, he'd be lucky to get a test run in by the end of the day, and he wouldn't have full access to the lab again until next month. His daughter whistled conspicuously louder in the corner already aware of the request soon to come her way. Her whistling turned to a saccharine humming, which further grated on Harold's nerves.
"How much?" he asked resignedly.
"$200. Final offer."
Harold winced, both at the price and at the blow to his ego. With all his brilliance and experience, he lacked his daughter's photographic memory and beyond-prodigious math aptitude. Nearly choking on his pride, he agreed. Mathilda set her book on the counter and took her time swaggering over to the control station, nudging her father aside with her elbow.
"Give me thirty minutes. In the meantime, you can go write me a check." After twenty minutes of scanning and typing, Mathilda stepped back. "It's done. For as much time as you've spent on this project, your coding really is for shit."
Harold grudgingly handed over the check, and Mathilda grinned smugly. Even in spite of his daughter's perpetually bad attitude and recent extortion, he was still proud of her aptitude. He wished she could find a proper outlet for her acuity besides driving him and everyone else around her crazy.
"Let's try this again," Harold declared, confident in his daughter's calculations. "Engage the oscillator." Mathilda did so, and a swirl of energy filled the extraction portal. Having never witnessed a successful trial, Mathilda struggled to find words to explain the sight. As the reaction progressed, the oscillator glowed with hues beyond the standard color spectrum—it was breathtaking.
"I so wish I was high right now."
Harold was pleased to see his daughter so engaged. "It is beautiful, isn't it? Like water flowing to fill an empty container, the energy flows to where it is deficient. In this case, the extraction portal conducts zero-point energy and directs it into the quantum harmonic oscillator, where it can be harnessed and further applied.
Power crackled and snapped like lightning, illuminating every corner of the vast room, as the radiant portal accepted a deluge of energy. Brimming with joy at his success, Harold's excitement turned to unease as he examined the readings on the screen, and the waves of swirling energy between the portal and the oscillator grew increasingly volatile. Alarms sounded, and a red light flashed from all directions.
"What the fuck is going on?" Mathilda shouted, unable to maintain her composure.
"The extraction portal isn't stabilizing. It's exceeding the power threshold!"
"What's going to happen?"
"Wait a moment, oh...oh my."
Time and space seemed to bend and distort all around them. A bolt of energy suddenly snapped through the room like a bullwhip, sending Harold ducking for cover. The extraction portal glowed red, orange, then a radiant blue, before a massive wave of energy spilled out of the portal into Mathilda's direction.
Harold's warning came too late, as the tidal wave of energy washed over her. A scream caught in her throat, as her muscles tensed and her body went rigid. While she felt she should panic, a soothing warmth flushed through her body. She relished the sensation, hoping it would never stop. I could die like this, she thought.
Before Harold's eyes, his daughter's body underwent a dramatic metamorphosis. Her shoulders and arms swelled first, the muscles growing denser and thicker with each passing second. Her ballooning thigh and calf muscles filled her baggy black jeans, which contoured to the shape of her expanding legs. The lycra tube top struggled to contain broadening chest and back, which packed on pounds of muscle with every passing second. Her boots surrendered as her increased weight and lengthened feet, ripped them apart.
Just as Harold feared the combined onslaught of ecstasy and power would reach critical mass, the portal abruptly shut down as if someone had pulled the plug. The whirring extraction chamber slowed to a halt, and the room settled into near silence. Harold stared dumbstruck, astonished at his daughter's transformation. He struggled to find words to speak.
"Mathilda? Are you...alright?"
Mathilda stood in reverent awe at her magnificent body. Raising one arm, she marveled at its sculpted definition. Concentrating, she could see the tiny textures of her skin with crystal clarity, as well as hear her father's racing heartbeat. Looking down, she ran a hand over her dramatically expanded breasts, to her tight, rippling abdomen. She leaned further forward to see her ankles and calves were now visible below her previously floor-length pant cuffs.
"I'm...fantastic! No, more than fantastic. Phenomenal! Like I could do anything."
She curled her arms inward, her biceps swelling nearly to the size of her head. She patted them proudly as her father stared slackjawed.
"Impressive, eh? They feel like granite! And I bet they're not just for show."
She picked up her book—a 300-page hardcover novel, and whimsically ripped it in half as if it were a single sheet of paper. Delighted, she grasped the two halves together and, with slightly more effort, tore them again.
"Wow, that was easy! I need a real challenge."
Tossed aside the shredded pages, she approached a row of cooling consoles in the corner. Before Harold could protest, she gripped the sides of the console and twisted her body, ripping an entire row of bolted-down machinery out of the floor with only a modest exertion. Harold covered his ears, the groaning of the torn metal almost deafening. With a satisfied nod at her work, she flipped the tonnage of metal aside.
"What a rush! I could get used to this!"
Having gathered his bearings, Harold finally spoke up. "Mathilda. What do you think you're going to do? Become a superhero?"
"First, superheroine," she corrected, striding towards him. Second, what does it matter to you? When have you ever been interested in what I do?"
"Mathilda, this is serious! With this kind of power, you could seriously hurt someone!"
"I know, right?" With less than a foot separating them, Mathilda stood before Harold, peering down at him with a giddy, menacing smile. She'd grown significantly taller, putting her father's forehead at breast-level. "What's your point, little guy?"
"I'm saying, it would be best for you to stay here until we can determine the full ramifications of what's happened to you."
"Hmmmm." Mathilda tapped her lips in mock contemplation, "Yeah, thanks but no thanks. I don't need you to tell me what I'm capable of. Besides, I don't think you want to try to stop me."
"Are you threatening me?"
Mathilda laughed, her deeper voice booming in the large room. "Threatening you?" What would be the point? If I really wanted to do something to you I would do it, and no one could stop me. Anyways," Mathilda placed her hands under her father's armpits and lifted him into the air with ease. "You're my daddy. I'll take care of you."
Neither Mathilda's words nor actions put Harold the slightest bit at ease. "What are you doing? Put me down!"
"Aw come on, Dad. Don't freak. I'm a big girl. I've got you." She tossed him a few feet in the air, and Harold struggled to maintain his dignity and not scream. Catching him, she gave him a condescending smirk before dropping him roughly, but safely to the ground. "Can't ignore me now, can ya'?"
Harold hung his head in defeat. "Mathilda, I'm sorry."
Mathilda knelt and patronizingly stroked her father's cheek. "Awww, you're sweet, daddy. And you know what? I agree. You are sorry." She stepped back, casting him in her imposing shadow. "This is what you get, old man, for messing with shit you don't understand. You'd think, after all these years, you'd have some idea what you were doing."
Harold said nothing and Mathilda pondered the broken man at her feet. After a moment, a wry grin appeared on her face, and she turned towards the exit.
"I quit, old man. You can keep your check. Consider it a parting gift. I don't imagine I'll have difficulty getting what I need now."
"What are you going to do?" Harold asked.
"Whatever the hell I want, of course. I see big things in my future, and I'll be sure you know all about it."
Mathilda stopped at the control station. Her fingers flew across the keys faster than Harold would have thought possible, and readouts scrolled so quickly he had no hope of keeping up. She'd truly become superhuman. After a few seconds, every panel in the lab went blank, and the lights dimmed, switching to emergency power.
"There. I've purged all traces of your research from the system. I don't think you'll be repeating this experiment anytime soon. All that remains is stored right here." Mathilda tapped the side of her head. "And don't try to get sneaky. I'll always be keeping an eye on you."
Mathilda moved towards the automatic door, which remained shut due to the power failure. Placing her hands against the two-inch-thick glass pane, she pressed forward, dislodging it with little effort. She chuckled as she stepped through the doorway, the broken glass and jagged metal leaving nary a scratch on her toughened skin. Harold listened as her heavy footfalls grew fainter, with a final dull crash indicating Mathilda hadn't used a door to let herself out.
Left in the dimness of the empty lab, Harold managed a soft smile. While he feared for himself and the world as a whole, he couldn't deny an underlying satisfaction. Mathilda was his daughter and every bit as much his legacy as his research. Already beautiful, with her intelligence, tenacity, and unparalleled strength, nothing would stand in her way. In eighteen years, he'd let his work come before his family, and he'd hardly given her anything.
Now he'd given her everything.